Congress and quite a few other opposition parties from all across the country appear to be finally waking up from their long stupor. Leaders of these diverse parties, that number nearly 20 or so, came onto the same screen on Friday, August 20, to hear Congress president Sonia Gandhi via video conferencing.
A joint statement was released soon after the meeting. It vowed on behalf of these parties to gear up and challenge together the might of the current BJP-led dispensation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the next general election of 2024. And to make a beginning towards this onerous task the 19 parties that signed the statement announced countrywide protests from 20th of the next month to 30th September.
These protests are expected to highlight outstanding economic, civic, medical and other rights-based issues dogging the vast majority of people who have for long been suffering because of the hubris of the current leadership.
The statement lists 11 demands. These cover speeding up free mass vaccination; a monthly assistance of ₹7,500 to all families that are outside the income tax bracket; free food kits for the poor; reduction in fuel and cooking oil prices; repeal of the three controversial farm laws; check on privatisation of public sector units and dilution of labour laws; stimulus package for small- and medium-sized industry instead of loans to save jobs; job guarantee for 200 days under MGNREGA with doubling of wages and initiation of an urban job guarantee programme; early reopening of educational institutions with stepped up and quick vaccination of teachers and students; institution of a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the use of Pegasus spyware for surveillance of select targets and investigation into the Rafale fighter aircraft deal; release of political prisoners being held under UAPA in Bhima Koregaon case and anti-CAA protests; check on unfettered use of sedition and other emergency laws; and release of political prisoners in Jammu and Kashmir with restoration of statehood and holding of early assembly elections.
Indeed, it sounds like a long though impressive litany. Yet it lacks urgency because a month-long notice is being virtually served on the government, which was chided by the leaders attending the tele-conference. It was more intense on the part of Mamata Banerjee, Hemant Soren and Tejaswai Yadav than Sonia herself. Anyway, the farmers’ agitation will be ten months old by the time the parties begin theirs.
Moreover, these parties’ protests, which were decided on the birthday of the late Rajiv Gandhi, will conclude just two days before the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, missing out on the solemnity and chance to attain a higher moral position vis-à-vis the BJP. The ruling party higher ups are already undertaking what they call ‘Ashirwaad Yatra’, or blessings tours, through several parts of the country. So the opposition parties are going to be rather late in making their move.
Besides this, the mode and manner of protests, as per the statement, are to be decided by the state units of the individual parties rather than being put under the central and unified command of a single or a group of leaders. The statement says, “The forms of these public protest actions will be decided by the respective state units of our parties depending on the concrete conditions of the COVID regulations and protocols existing in the state.” This clearly leaves the scope of COVID restrictions being flaunted by some of the provinces, more so the BJP-ruled States, to thwart the opposition protests.
The statement does use the term “hartal”, or shutdown, once but stops short of calling for a Bharat Bandh, at least at this stage. It indicates to the likelihood that through the ten days of the proposed protests, the state capitals rather than Delhi are going to become the hub of these shows. This despite the fact that the opposition statement generally focuses upon the ineptness of Modi’s rule rather than that of the state BJP leaders.
But as for states, there are going to be assembly polls early next year in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. The outcome of these polls is expected to affect the presidential polls to be held subsequently, or by July 2022. Among the states going to polls before this, UP is going to have the lion’s share in the president’s indirect election where the newly elected MLAs will vote. There have been reports indicating that the NCP leader Sharad Pawar may well try his luck for the post of next president. Pawar was present at Friday’s virtual exchange with Sonia and other leaders. But no leader from either the Samajwadi Party or Bahujan Samaj Party took part in the meeting. Both are main parties in UP. The statement, however, noted, “Leader of Samajwadi Party, Shri Akhilesh Yadav, wrote a letter and expressed his inability to join the meeting as he was in the interior of the state. This statement was, however, sent to him.”
Among other opposition absentees were Aam Aadmi Party, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, YSR Congress and Telangana Rashtra Samiti. All these parties have mostly been equidistant from both the Congress and BJP and they often decide their stand on an issue to issue basis. Friday’s meeting also could not break the ice with any of these parties though Sonia Gandhi assured peers that “they will not find Congress wanting” in the fight against the ruling party.
Significantly, the opposition parties have met at a time when first signs of discomfort with the current confrontation between those in power and the opposition have been shown by a member of the Union Cabinet. Nitin Gadkari has spoken glowingly about the high democratic standards followed by Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As prime ministers, both showed great respect for the opposition, Gadkari said in a TV interview on Thursday. The minister was referring to the stalemate that washed out the monsoon session of Parliament.
The opposition remained unmoved by Gadkari’s lamentations even though his remarks in a way sought to measure Modi vis-à-vis his two illustrious predecessors. So the noises made by the opposition stalwarts inside or outside Parliament appear to rely more on rhetoric and miss the substance. It is so even when a rival has come to realise the worth of opposition in parliamentary democracy.